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Why A Small Trigger Warning Makes A Big Difference To Trauma Survivors

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When we talk about (or argue over) gender, sexuality, mental health, and various other issues both on the internet, and in our daily lives, we often forget how our language can be both intentionally or unintentionally damaging to people who may have faced these issues more intimately. In the context of this, navigating one’s lived existence as someone who has experienced violence or emotional trauma becomes extremely difficult. That, coupled with how the internet gives one free reign to post any kind of content without any filter or respect for one’s private boundaries, makes it even more of a challenge for a survivor of trauma to get by.

While we may not be able to sensitize or narrow down both real world and online content in such cases, one of the few ways in which things could be made at least a little easier is by providing trigger warnings.

What’s  A Trigger Warning?

A Trigger warning is any kind of verbal or written note which prefaces possibly traumatic content. They are meant to warn the audience that said content may have a strong potential to trigger (or cause) a negative emotional response, or bring upon unpleasant memories of a traumatic experience. Though they are mostly used online (in social media or various social justice spaces), they are sometimes (and ideally should be) also used in daily conversations. A trigger warning is usually denoted by a TW or a CW (content warning), and can span a lot of different ‘triggering’ experiences (like drug abuse, mental health issues, eating disorders, and so on). For survivors of trauma, a trigger warning can go a long way in helping them avoid content that may cause both emotional and physical post-traumatic distress, and hence, for us to dismiss or ridicule trigger warnings can ultimately become an unintentional act of violence.

Why are Trigger Warnings A Cause For Debate?

Last month, University of Chicago clearly stated in a letter addressing freshmen that it would “not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’ ”  to alert students of upcoming discussions or speakers that they might find offensive. But this was just one such instance. In so many universities, workplaces and other real-life situations, trigger warnings aren’t provided or even taken seriously. In fact, trigger warnings are often berated on the internet (especially among MRAs or those with conservative leanings) as being ‘over-sensitive’ or as some ‘skewed idea of social justice’ – so much so that the word ‘triggered’ has become an internet meme with harmful connotations.

The denial to accept or use trigger warnings comes from an extreme position of privilege, where one refuses to acknowledge the need for them because they themselves have never experienced or witnessed such a situation. Hence, to make trigger warnings more common, one needs to recognize and challenge this privilege. As a cisgender person, I might not know what kind of trauma a trans woman might face in being harassed or discriminated against, but that does not mean that I cannot be respectful of their post-traumatic needs, and provide them with warnings whenever any discussion veers towards something that make them uncomfortable.

But beyond privilege, the most important thing perhaps is to talk about the very issues of  surrounding the causes of trauma more. There is a deep-seated need to understand how such violence affects different people differently, and how it can have adverse effects on one’s mental health – and that can only be done once we break our silence surrounding these issues. Only once we acknowledge how traumatic certain situations can be, we can acknowledge how important a trigger warning is.

We live in an ableist, patriarchal world where experiences surrounding sexual assault, or a mental or physical disability becomes cause for further oppression rather than empathy  and compassion.

Just like it’s natural for the body to need healing after physical violence, it’s also natural for someone’s mind to need healing after something as traumatic as sexual violence. That’s why a diagnosis like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) exists – not because something’s “wrong” with struggling with the aftermath of trauma, but because trauma often has a negative impact on mental health; and a trigger warning becomes essential in dealing with that trauma. In our society, any amount of mental trauma (especially those caused as a result of surviving violence) is viewed as some kind of weakness or dishonour, because discussions of rape or assault themselves are so deeply stigmatized or silenced.

Hence, to disregard a trigger warning, to treat it as a joke or punchline against ‘social justice warriors’ means to disrespect the valid personal experiences of a survivor, and in a way, put the onus of the trauma on the survivor itself, which is a skewed expression of victim blaming yet again.

We as a society need to broaden our understanding of the emotional needs of trauma survivors, and evolve better ways of responding to and dealing with the resulting violence and trauma. A trigger warning might not completely stop a survivor from experiencing emotional and physical difficulties, but it goes a long way to help in the recovery and healing process. Hence, we need to use them more and more often.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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